Living with the Apocalypse
The Academics, the Artist, and the Mayan
By Urmila Ramakrishnan
John Watkins walks from his office to the classroom where he teaches Apocalypse Now at the University of Minnesota. He clasps a golden-leafed Mormon bible while fervently describing a global pandemic striking. A passerby scowls at him. Watkins wonders if it’s the bible, talk of the pandemic, or a combination of the two that elicited the response.
Watkins has no disdain for the subjects. On the contrary—he finds them fascinating. Today’s lecture is on the Mormon apocalypse. He leans against the desk in the center of the room in his all-brown tweed suit. He strums his fingers as a solemn hymn echoes through the room: guitar and harp strings pluck at simple chords, then a flute chimes in. A woman sings in tribute to the Mormon prophet and church founder Joseph Smith.
“Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah. Jesus anointed that prophet at sea. Blessed to all… kings shall extoll him and nations revered. Hail to the prophet ascended to heaven. Traitors and titans will fight him in vain. Mingling with god, he can plan for his reverend. Death cannot conquer the hero again.”
Roads Leading to the End
Many people have a natural curiosity about these catastrophic events that could derail life as we know it. But most of us don’t dwell on the topic for long. Others, like Watkins, possess a keen and ongoing interest in apocalypse. It has become part of their studies, their work and their lives.
Watkins’ favorite religious apocalypse is the Mormon interpretation. According to him, the Mormon religion is one the least understood and most hated religions in America. That’s part of the reason Watkins relishes their apocalyptic scripture.
“The way it introduces the textual event of the coming of the end,” Watkins said. “It inserts itself successfully into the apocalyptic narrative in its ability for it to create that change that we can observe in the 19th and 20th century.
“What turns me on about the apocalypse is the way it makes all different social fears, expectations and longings visible. It makes all those very, very present. So the apocalypse makes all the underlying social tensions agitated and nervous.”
Watkins started teaching his end-of-the-world class as a senior seminar for English majors in 1999, the turn of the millennium. With fears of Y2K in percolating in our collective consciousness, he felt it was it was too good an opportunity to pass up. The only time Watkins was nervous about an apocalypse was when the clock first struck midnight Jan. 1, 2000, across the globe.
“I breathed a sigh of relief that Hong Kong and China made it to the 21st century without disaster.”
Watkins teaches his course in three parts: 1) ancient scripture and origins of the apocalypse; 2) Elizabethan texts, and, 3) contemporary evangelicals in America, along with global pandemic threats. “We end with the pandemic, about the time we hit cold and flu season,” Watkins chuckled.
The Beginning of the End
How does one stumble into studying the apocalypse? Watkins says two routes led him to researching the apocalypse. His dissertation was on Elizabethan literature and Elizabethan models of Roman culture.
“On a deeper level, I grew up in a non-apocalyptic religious tradition in the middle of the American South where I was surrounded by apocalyptic believers,” Watkins says. His family was Catholic, while the community was largely evangelical. “It was for me a foreign discourse but it was also one that was all around me. It was like you’re living in a multilingual area and you speak one language, but you also understand the other languages around you, so very much an insider-outsider thing. I was an outsider non-apocalypticist surrounded by people that thought apocalyptically,” he says. Watkins said it allowed him to understand the apocalypse well, but also to not believe in it.
In December 2012—the month that some predict the world will end— Watkins plans to be in Mexico with his 15-year-old son and partner. He’s not concerned about impending doom.
“I think the calendar will end. We’ll turn the page and it will be January 2013,” Watkins says.
Art Imitating the Apocalypse
While most people may ponder the end for the duration of a book or film, James Berger has dedicated a good portion of his career to studying end of the world situations and how they’re portrayed in film.
The Yale University professor finds filmmakers’ interpretations of Doomsday scenarios an interesting reflection of society’s views at different points in history. For example, amidst the Cold War fears of the early 1960s, Stanley Kubrik’s film, Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, envisioned a nuclear Armageddon as the end of us all. The 1995 film 12 Monkeys pegged a man-made virus as the cause humanity’s demise.
Berger first became interested in “the end” in the mid 1980s, when his fascination in action movies coincided with intensification of the Cold War during the Reagan presidency. The dangers facing the U.S. made the end of the world less of a theory and more of a possibility.
“There was a social curiosity on my part to kind of diagnose what was happening to the country at that time,” Berger said of the period. He felt “the sense that something really had ended—that we were living in the wake of this catastrophe.” The feeling at the time grew into a lifelong fascination with apocalyptic themes.
His interest also was shaped by difficult experiences as he was growing up. In the book After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse, Berger recounts how his only two sisters were mentally disabled, which his says contributed to his knowledge of catastrophe.
As for the predicted Dec. 21 end date: “I think absolutely nothing about it. Why should anyone think anything about it? It is bologna. I mean who the (expletive) cares.”
The End as a New Beginning
Dr. Jose Jaramillo, a film director, was born in Mexico and has Mayan roots. He began studying the Mayan calendar in 1998.
Jaramillo has created three movies dedicated to explorations of the Mayan calendar, two of which center the calendar and its links to apocalyptic predictions.
“I think the Mayas were looking at things much, much bigger than our current society in thinking about time.”
His first film, Between Two Worlds, explores the differences between the Gregorian and the Mayan calendars. His second movie, The Alignment Within, chronicles the lives of people who use the calendar as a guide for their everyday living.
His latest work is focused is on what is considered the Mayans’ most sacred calendar.
“There are many different calendars of the Mayans, but the most important calendar of all—and this is even something that was hidden even among the Maya itself—is the 260-day calendar. We now have access to this sacred calendar.”
Jamarillo says the 260-day calendar aligns with the human body’s 260 major joints and bones, and reflects natural cycles between the physical and spiritual worlds.
In contrast to an end caused by an enormous earthquake, meteorite collision or global pandemic, he sees the patterns of the Mayan calendar as symbols of stability and a new birth—transition, not destruction.
“We ask the question of why people are afraid of this and other prophecies. They are more concerned about the Mayan prophecies because the Maya were so accurate with their solar eclipse and with the lunar eclipse [calculations], but I think that the most important thing to know, to understand, [is] that Dec. 21, 2012 symbolizes the end of a 5200-year calendar.
“I don’t think the Mayas really saw that particular day was going to be the end of the world. The Mayans, they talked about that this would be a time where we should be working together as a species. So instead of looking at something negative to happen, we should go and create with our minds and with our thoughts that something is good for us is going to happen on Dec. 21, 2012. ”
“Everything physical ends,” said Chad Marsolek, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota. “Not just our lives and the lives of other living things on this planet, but also nations and civilization. Even our planet will end someday when our sun ends. When we realize this and then hear predictions of the end of the world, it’s an at least somewhat intriguing thing to think about.”
To be able to imagine a catastrophic end that may not happen is less daunting than thinking about our actual deaths, which is inevitable. It’s a way of coping with the inevitable. A way to joke and cheat death without delving into the reality of it.
That’s why artist, Cole Hoyer-Winfield (HW) finds it interesting.
Every seat is filled in the Open Eye Theater in downtown Minneapolis. It’s a Saturday evening in late October. There is a cat, a hippie, a toucan and three caped vampires without fangs in attendance. Hipsters gather on the floor with a plethora of plush pillows. The lights dim.
A cape-clad HW appears onstage with the three other Draculas. HW places a projector at center stage. A wooden box rests on top it. A chill fills the air. Double doors open to reveal a screen.
The reptilians are coming! As HW rotates a lever connected to the wooden box, pictures glide across the screen. His black-and-white drawings narrate a story about reptilians from Planet X taking over the world and a giant meteor hitting the earth, causing its destruction.
As HW’s story progresses, his voice and the accompanying music get louder and louder. At points, the transparencies shake, lending the pictures a sense of motion and urgency. The world really is going to be taken over by the reptilian-like creatures. … Or is it?
HW is a block printer. His studio is located in an old building tucked between a restaurant and a picture-framing store in Minneapolis. He sits at the only table in the middle of the room. A wooden carving of a hand emerging from a chaotic background lies next to black-and-white cards. He hand carves drawings into wooden blocks. The patterns are then inked onto paper.
HW’s fascination with the end of the world began far from his Minneapolis studio, in Brazil where strange coincidences ultimately inspired his art.
“Would you consider yourself a spiritual person? Yeah, well I am spiritual, but I just sort of make it up. I’ve just had a lot of really weird experiences, like a lot of coincidences that make a lot of sense,” he says.
One of those coincidences was meeting his printmaking influence: an 85-year-old hermit-artist who had published a book that HW found mesmerizing.
“I was just cruising around used book stores trying to find it. I finally got it [two days before leaving Brazil] and got back to the U.S., and just poured over it for two years.”
HW later returned to Brazil where he ended up working at a municipal building for printmaking. He and a colleague began to talk about the local artist whose work HW had studied.
“I was like, man, it would be really cool to meet him, but I don’t have any of his contact information and he doesn’t know me. He‘s 85. I don’t know if it would work out.’” The colleague said that the man in question had been in that very building two years ago and published a yellow book; the same inspirational book HW bought during his earlier visit.
“The studio where I’d ended up completely by chance, out of this whole country, was the one place where a book was made of his work. They gave me his contact information, and I went to Olinda to visit him.”
Experiences like this one prompted HW to believe that Dec. 21 will bring a spiritual change. He doesn’t envision a dark or catastrophic end like he portrays in his artwork, but predicts that either new souls will be transported through a portal, or our souls will evolve.
According to Watkins, we are enticed by the apocalypse, but are terrified at the same time. “It reminds us that we are animals. ” In a parallel scope of things, humans are the pandemic to other animals. It’s difficult to think that way. Whether the world explodes, a pandemic makes us all zombies, or a portal opens to new souls, these individuals await Dec. 21 and many other end dates with baited breath.
Photo By: Shota Fuse. Taken at one of Cole’s shows.